Saturday, August 8, 2009

162. Franny and Zooey – J.D. Salinger

History: Published as such in 1961, its two parts having originally appeared as a short story and a novella in The New Yorker in 1957.
Plot: The action of both parts takes place over a long weekend in November 1955. The first section concerns Franny Glass's weekend date with her collegiate boyfriend, Lane Coutell. Franny is carrying with her a book, which turns out to be The Way of a Pilgrim, a Russian religious text that explores the idea of continuous prayer and spiritual illumination.
The two go out for lunch. He takes Franny to a fashionable lunch spot, and tries to impress her with his news of receiving a suggestion to publish his latest paper on Flaubert. Franny appears upset, questioning the importance of college education and the worth of Lane's friends. She eats nothing, and is smoking, sweating, and feeling faint, and must excuse herself to visit the restroom, where, after a crying spell, she regains her composure. She returns to the table, where Lane questions her on the small book she has been carrying. She responds nonchalantly that the book is titled The Way of a Pilgrim and tells the story of how a Russian wanderer learns the power of "praying without ceasing." The "Jesus Prayer," as it is known, involves internalizing the prayer to a point where, in a manner similar to a Zen koan, it becomes unconscious, almost like a heartbeat, ultimately leading to spiritual enlightenment. Lane is less interested in the story than in keeping their timetable for the party and football game, though when Franny faints, he tends to her and postpones the weekend's activities. After she wakes, he goes to get a taxi, and leaves Franny alone — practicing the act of praying without ceasing.
This section continues the story of Franny's "nervous breakdown" and takes place on Monday, two days after Franny's trip to Princeton. It also elaborates on the story of the Glass Family: The unusual upbringing of the Glass children, with radio appearances as child geniuses and philosophy around the dinner table, has created a unique bond among them, and they understand each other more than anyone else could.
The second part begins with Zooey, smoking and soaking in a tub, reading a four-year-old letter from his brother, Buddy. His mother, Bessie, enters the bathroom, and the two have a long discussion, centering upon Bessie's worries about his sister, Franny, whose existential depression seen in "Franny" has progressed to a state of emotional collapse. During the conversation, Zooey verbally spars and banters with his mother and repeatedly requests that she leave. Bessie tolerates Zooey's behavior, and simply states he's becoming more and more like his brother Buddy.
After Bessie leaves, Zooey gets dressed and moves into the living room, where he finds Franny on the sofa with her cat Bloomberg, and begins speaking with her. After upsetting Franny by questioning her motives for reciting the "Jesus Prayer," Zooey retreats into the former bedroom of Seymour and Buddy, Franny and Zooey's two older brothers, and reads the back of their door, covered in philosophical quotations. After contemplation, Zooey telephones Franny, pretending to be their brother Buddy. Franny eventually discovers the ruse, but she and Zooey continue to talk. Knowing that Franny reveres their eldest brother, Seymour — the psychologist, spiritual leader, and confidante of the family, who committed suicide years earlier while on vacation with his wife. Zooey shares with her some words of wisdom that Seymour once gave him. By the end of the call, as the fundamental "secret" of Seymour's advice is revealed, Franny seems, in a moment reminiscent of a mystical satori, to find profound existential illumination in what Zooey has told her.
Review: I absolutely hated Franny and Zooey. True, I disliked The Catcher in the Rye as well, but Franny and Zooey is even worse. It is, with very few competitors, one of the most pretentious, self-indulgent novels I have ever read. In fact, it's not even really a novel. For one thing, the book is so dialogue-heavy that it reads like a play--an extremely talky play, with only two or three sets. Where there is not dialogue, Salinger fills the empty space with a lot of descriptions of meaningless action--Zooey will move a glass from here to there, Franny will readjust the forks before her, etc. More importantly, the book is only minimally concerned with such niceties as plot and character: it is really an extended, rambling philosophical discussion about religion (Western and, importantly, Eastern) and the Meaning of Life. Franny and Zooey are basically insufferable. They are over-privileged and highly educated, which is normally not a problem--but the annoying part is that they are intellectual name-droppers and whiners, youngsters who are in love with their own ideas and voices, with abstractions and high-mindedness and what they perceive as Deep Thoughts. They are unbelievably preoccupied with themselves.
Opening Line: “Though brilliantly sunny, Saturday morning was overcoat weather again, not just topcoat weather, as it had been all week and as everyone had hoped it would stay for the big weekend – the weekend of the Yale game.”
Closing Line: “For some minutes, before she fell into a deep, dreamless sleep, she just lay quiet, smiling at the ceiling.”
Quotes: "An artist's only concern is to shoot for some kind of perfection, and on his own terms, not anyone else's."
Rating: Not good.

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